Lessons from the Pinochet Cases

“The unmentionable odor of death
Offends the September night”

W. H. Auden 9/1/39

September has become Generalissimo Augusto Pinochet Ugarte’s cruelest month. September once loomed as the time of Pinochet’s personal triumph — and death for his victims around the world. On September 11, 1973 (28 years before the World Trade Center-Pentagon attack), Pinochet led a bloody, US-backed coup against the elected socialist government of Dr. Salvador Allende who died as assault troops stormed his office.

In September 1974, Pinochet ordered his secret police to assassinate his former boss, General Carlos Prats, Chile’s army chief under Allende, who lived in exile in Buenos Aires. A car bomb blew Prats and his wife six stories high.

In September 1975, Pinochet authorized another overseas hit. In early October, a gunman fired at close range into the heads of Bernardo Leighton and his wife as they strolled on a Rome street. Both the exiled Christian Democratic leader and his wife survived but never fully recovered from the critical wounds.

A year later, Pinochet gave the green light to kill Orlando Letelier, Allende’s last Defense Minister, exiled in Washington, D.C. On September 21, 1976, Pinochet’s hit squad detonated a bomb placed under his car. The blast on Washington’s Embassy Row severed Letelier’s legs and also killed Ronni Moffitt, a young American woman passenger and colleague of Letelier’s at the Institute for Policy Studies where both worked.

These assassinations took place under Operation Condor, a pact between Latin American intelligence agencies, with some US participation as well, to pursue and kill Latin American dissidents in foreign countries.

September once meant death and destruction for Pinochet’s political enemies. This year, however, September meant discovery. A Chilean judge ordered divers to search for evidence relating to missing bodies of other Pinochet victims. On September 22, the underwater team found pieces of railroad track that Pinochet’s killers had apparently used to weight down the bodies of the dictator’s ideological enemies.

Judge Juan Guzman claimed that he had “abundant information” about Chilean soldiers using railroad ties as extra weight to insure that the bodies they threw in the ocean would not surface. Guzman accumulated evidence about the whereabouts of the 1200 “disappeared” people–euphemism for avoiding paper trails for murder. No arrest records. No corpse! No crime!  But Pinochet’s pursuers refused to quit.

Two years ago, retired Air Fore Sgt. Juan Carlos Molina, told a Chilean TV audience that he and other armed forces members had lashed dead bodies to railroad ties, put them in bags and thrown them from airplanes into the sea. Four years ago, Chile’s military command formally acknowledged that it had disposed of 200 bodies in such fashion.

One of these cases involved the disappearance of 10 Communist Party leaders in 1976, including Jorge Munoz, the husband of the current Party leader, Gladys Marin. Three years ago, Guzman ordered Pinochet placed under house arrest, but Chile’s Supreme Court declared the aging despot too sick and demented to stand trial. He supposedly suffers from memory loss, diabetes and arthritis. He did, however, appear entirely cogent in a long interview he recently granted to a Miami TV station and, as we shall see, in the handling of his finances.

In August, Guzman finally convinced an Appeals Court to strip Pinochet of immunity from prosecution, voiding the amnesty the former emperor gave himself before leaving the presidency to which he had appointed himself. Pinochet has 3,197 murder charges facing him, the number of people that Chilean government investigators counted as having been assassinated during his 17 year reign of terror (1973-90)

In September, the law struck Pinochet again in the form of Spanish Judge Baltazar Garzon’s demand to freeze his assets and file charges against him and the bank that hid his money. In July, the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations had issued a report that made the general’s declining years even grimmer: Pinochet had colluded with officers of the Riggs Bank of Washington DC to hide as much as $8 million in accounts in his and his wife’s name. Even Pinochet’s aging fan club members shuddered when they learned that the man who swore that he had lived on a modest general’s salary was worth up to $100 million, according to Riggs officials. And Pinochet had not declared this income to Chile’s internal revenue service–yet, another crime. To add to this Chilean Macbeth’s misery, his victims and their families filed a lawsuit to collect his assets.

Spanish lawyer Juan Garces, representing Pinochet’s victims in the civil and criminal suit, first instigated legal proceedings in 1996. His legal efforts also opened the path for Chilean Judge Guzman to proceed. Thanks to his efforts, Pinochet now faces a myriad of legal problems.

In the United States, The Senate Sub-Committee and then Justice began to probe his illicit funds after Garces convinced Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon to request US authorities to freeze Pinochet assets in October 1998. In July 2004 Garzon filed criminal charges against the Riggs Bank of Washington D.C., charging its officers with illegally concealing Pinochet’s assets after they received the writ to freeze them. If Justice does not indict Pinochet, Garzon will charge him and Riggs with money laundering and concealing assets.

Garces served as Allende’s political adviser and narrowly escaped death on the morning of the 1973 coup. But he never stopped pursuing justice in the Pinochet case. In 1996, he organized prosecutors and lawyers in Spain to file criminal and civil suits against the dictator. A Spanish judge accepted jurisdiction on the grounds that sufficient evidence existed that Pinochet had committed terrorist acts, genocide and torture–all crimes under international law.

When he learned of Pinochet’s October 1998 stay in London, Garces convinced Judge Garzon, who had recently taken over the case, that sufficient evidence existed to ask British authorities to arrest Pinochet and request his extradition to stand trial in Spain and to freeze his assets so that his victims could receive some compensation. British authorities complied. At the time, the old bully was visiting his pal, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, shopping at Harrods and dining at the elegant London bistros. The London arrest began Pinochet’s fall from former president meriting red carpet treatment to accused criminal.

In 1999, The House of Lords upheld the charges of systematic torture and a judge ordered that Pinochet be sent to Spain to stand trial. But in January 2000 British and Chilean authorities concocted a medical escape for Pinochet, finding doctors who claimed he was too sick and demented to stand trial. In March 2000, after spending 15 months as a prisoner, Pinochet landed in Chile. As he danced a cueca leaving the airplane he embraced his officer buddies who lined up to greet him. He miraculously remembered their names. The dictator appeared to have escaped the grasp of justice. But, said Garces in September 2004, the Riggs Bank expose reopened the case, this time “about the money the criminal made and hid.”

The Pinochet cases dramatize issues beyond the fate of an 88 year old ex dictator who claimed that “state needs” forced him to kill and torture.

Since the end of World War II, US presidents ordered the overthrow of governments in Iran, Guatemala, Brazil and Chile — a few examples–and invaded Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia ­a few of many examples — because of Cold War “needs of state.”

Ironically, US leaders had also introduced the 1945-6 Nuremberg laws, which outlawed aggressive war. They helped frame the UN Charter, which outlawed intervention in the affairs of other states. But Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, justifying President Nixon’ decision to destabilize the government of Chile didn’t “see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.” He referred to the judgment of Chileans at the election booths in 1970 when they chose Allende as their president.

Kissinger dramatized his preference for state needs over law when confronted by massive murder and torture in Chile. He told his staff that “we should understand our policy-that however unpleasant they [Pinochet’s repressive forces] act, the government is better for us than Allende was.”

The Pinochet cases also relate to the invasion of Iraq, a crime committed by George W. Bush for “needs of state.” Bush’s subjective interpretation of US national security nullifies law. The Pinochet cases question the right of heads of state to commit criminal acts. What a juicy issue for US voters! Unfortunately, Kerry has not exactly made the issue crystal clear.

SAUL LANDAU is the Director of Digital Media and International Outreach Programs for the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. His new book is The Business of America.


SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.